The mountain looms large in our imagination. We speak of summits and pinnacles and peaks as though anything could be compared to a mountain. We use them in logos (Paramount) and brands (Denali) to represent quality, immovability, toughness. Mountains have a majesty, and they always have. The Greek gods had their abode on Mount Olympus. Noah’s Ark is said to be on Mount Ararat. Frodo had to take the One Ring to Mount Doom.
That last, of course, is a purely literary creation. (Some would say the others are, too, but that’s not the point of this post.) And that naturally brings us to the question of how to use mountains in a story. What is so special about them? What makes them stand out in literature? Read on for my thoughts.
Reaching the peak
First, I think that a mountain, more than any other geographical feature, represents achievement. In a way, that’s because we often hear tales of mountain climbing, but those tales only came about because people saw mountains as things to be conquered. And that’s a relatively recent phenomenon. Only in the past few decades has it really become a major source of adventure.
But it’s perfect for that. Climbing a mountain can be a grueling, demanding task. For the tallest and most remote peaks, you need some serious training and preparation. The environment is inhospitable at best, deadly at worst. Just catching sight of the summit is an accomplishment. Reaching it is a true achievement, and the flanks of, for example, Everest are littered with stories of failure.
And really, when you think about it, there’s no reason to bother. The whole thing’s a fruitless pursuit, a pure adventure with no true payoff. Why do people climb Mount Everest? Because it’s there. That’s it. No other reason at all, but that it’s something to do, a visible goal we can strive towards.
In that, the mountain serves as the perfect metaphor. Even better, climbing quite naturally gives us a definite climax, as well as the perfect opportunity for a “false ending” where the presumed climax isn’t actually the conclusion of the story. After all, sometimes the hardest part is getting back down the mountain.
But back to the metaphor…well, metaphor. It really does have a lot of levels, but they all find their way back to that same inescapable conclusion: there’s a peak, and we have to reach it. If you’re a writer who can’t find a way to make that work, then you might be in the wrong line of work. You don’t even have to put a volcanic chasm at the top, as Tolkien did. Any mountain can evoke the same sense of accomplishment, of achieving one’s aims.
Beyond that, mountains can also make for good scenery, even in written form. Visually, as you know, a jagged line or solitary, snow-capped peak can be downright stunning. Described well, they can make the same impact in a novel, too. But you have to go about it a different way.
In my opinion, mountains as scenery, as backdrop, work best when they’re integrated into the story, but not the primary focus. A mountain is rugged, remote, inaccessible. It’s not the kind of place that is often the center of attention. Thus, it can fade into the background while still casting a shadow over a setting.
Who knows what lurks out there? Mountains can be the abode of gods, monsters, or just backwoods hill folk. Whatever the case, we’re talking about beings who don’t normally visit the cities and towns. They’re wild, but a different sort of wild than the denizens of, say, a forest. Mountains, because of their harsh nature, imply a harder life. We have the stereotypical image of the “mountain man”, as well as legendary creatures such as the Yeti, and these both speak to the myth of the mountain.
All alone out here
Another thing that follows from the idea of mountains being remote is their isolation. They’re the perfect place to get away from it all. The taller ones are bleak, seemingly lifeless, while shorter peaks may be covered in trees, but they share that common bond. The mountain is a retreat.
Today, we might think of that in terms of ski lodges, campgrounds, or hiking trails, but there’s a deeper history here, one that plays into fantasy and other fiction. If you want to escape, you head to the hills, whatever your reason for escaping in the first place. Monasteries (or their fantasy equivalents) work well in the mountains, and what alpine story doesn’t have a secret hideaway somewhere up above the treeline? Nobody knows about these places for the very simple reason that they’re not meant to be found. So what better place to put them than the one nobody would think to look in?
Finally, mountains are a great setting for disaster, whether natural or man-made. Obviously, volcanoes are exciting, dangerous spectacles. Avalanches are more sudden, but their aftermath can make for a good survival story. Flooding (possibly from melting snow) can provide a relatively slow, yet no less unstoppable, threat.
On the highest mountains, it’s the storm that is the biggest, most cinematic of disasters. The snowstorm that struck Mount Everest in May 1996, for instance, spawned the book Into Thin Air and the more recent movie Everest. Once the mountain gets tall enough where climbers need oxygen tanks, then that’s a consumable that can run dry at the exact wrong moment. Add in blinding blizzards, hurricane-force winds, deadly cold—you get the picture.
On the artificial side of the disaster aisle, you have the fantasy standby of the siege, especially when the defenders in their mountain fastness are heavily outnumbered; think the battle of the Wall in A Storm of Swords, although that, strictly speaking, wasn’t an actual mountain. Combined with the idea of a hidden society shut away behind the rocky faces, and you have a lot to play with.
Last on the list, in a strange twist, is what was actually the first mountain disaster movie I ever watched: Alive. The true story of the 1972 Andes plane crash is a gripping tale that needs no embellishment. Weeks of cold, of starvation and injury and general privation, ended in death for most, miraculous survival for a very few. The same story could be told on a deserted island or in the middle of the ocean (In the Heart of the Sea works for the latter), but the mountain setting of this disaster gives it a starkness that anywhere else in the world would lack. For beating the odds, it’s hard to beat the peaks.